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The museum experiment

Irish history in three dimensions, 25 texts, and 12 guest lectures

Adjunct professor of English Vera Kreilkamp; adjunct assistant professor of art history Katherine Nahum; adjunct associate professor of history Robert J. Savage CLASS:
English 596, Fine Arts 210, History 669: "Éire/Land: Political, Visual, and Literary Perspectives"

Adjunct professor of English Vera Kreilkamp; adjunct assistant professor of art history Katherine Nahum; adjunct associate professor of history Robert J. Savage

Éire/Land, catalogue of McMullen Museum of Art exhibition; The Course of Irish History, edited by F.X. Martin and T.W. Moody; The Irish Famine, by Peter Gray; Translations by Brian Friel; Opened Ground, by Seamus Heaney; The Aran Islands, by John Millington Synge; Early Poems, by William Butler Yeats; Grania, by Emily Lawless

It's midway through the spring semester, and only now is Robert Savage, the associate director of BC's Irish Studies Program, able to say with confidence that the collaborative teaching experiment he's been involved in is working. "Well," he says after class one day, "it's been a bit of an adventure." The new course, "Éire/Land: Political, Visual, and Literary Perspectives," is the brainchild of historian Savage, literary scholar Vera Kreilkamp, and art historian Katherine Nahum, and it offers an exploration of the Irish people's "cultural responses" to their land. The idea grew out of a concurrent exhibition, at BC's McMullen Museum of Art, highlighting Irish art, artifacts, and maps.

With three instructors, the course features a six-page syllabus, 12 guest lecturers, 45 mostly undergraduate students, multiple visits to the museum to view gilt-framed oils or ancient brooches or spiral sketchbooks, readings from more than 25 texts, and a lot of writing. Initially, there was uncertainty among the faculty about classroom logistics—who should lecture when, who would moderate discussions, when should they take the class to the museum—and about whether the syllabus they'd spent months designing would work. "We were really concerned it would be all over the place, too eclectic, too ambitious," says Savage. But in retrospect, says Nahum in mid-March, "having a little touch of chaos makes things very lively." Indeed, several months into the semester, students are thriving on an improvisational approach that jams two or three lectures and museum visits into the once-weekly, two-and-a-half-hour class period in Devlin 218.

No two sessions are the same. Historian Savage launches one class with an overview of the Great Irish Famine of the late 1840s, explaining how it changed the political, social, agricultural, emigration, and even linguistic habits of the country. Nahum follows immediately with a slide show and talk on several paintings of the period, including one in the McMullen exhibit called An Ejectment in Ireland (A Tear and a Prayer for Erin) by Dubliner Robert G. Kelly (1822-1910). It is a poor painting, Nahum contends. Unlike some political cartoons that Savage showed earlier, in which a persuasive purpose is clear, An Ejectment, she says, hides behind its sentimental style—Kelly himself claimed the painting was apolitical—and fails to adequately capture its subject, the horror of tenant evictions during the famine. Kreilkamp, previously silent, here interjects: The work, she says, ought not be viewed strictly through the protocols of formal art criticism. "We need to see it as coming out of the social and political context of the time."

The professors' exchange draws students into a discussion about the function of art. Talk grows more animated once everyone moves downstairs to the museum to look at the original painting and the details that weren't clear in the slide. One student notes the robustness of the evictees and points out a skirmish in the background between British redcoats on horseback and Irish peasants, outgunned and some wielding pikes. She surmises that these elements reflect the artist's aim: to convey the tenants' dignity and show their fortitude in resisting injustice. Another student observes that in its romantic depiction of events, the painting seems more like illustration—it's unambiguous, didactic—than like great art. And in fact, Savage affirms, the painting caused a stir at the time among conservative English, who saw it as a knock at British policy.

History and art square off frequently in class, with literary works coming in for much the same probing as the visual arts. Tony Award-winning playwright Brian Friel's Translations (1980) affords a case in point. Friel set the play in Donegal during the Ordnance Survey of 1833, in which British surveyors remapped Ireland for taxation purposes, imposing English names on Irish places as they went. For the playwright, the survey is a metaphor for British cultural imperialism; but an analysis of the work by critic J.H. Andrews (which the class also reads), points up historical inaccuracies—the "tiny bruises on history"—that Friel inflicted to score political points. Do artists have the right to alter history to suit their art? Kreilkamp asks the class.

Several students respond that poetic license is the artist's prerogative. They cite the movies Michael Collins and JFK as examples of Hollywood films that have rewritten history to serve a director's bias. "History is totally open to interpretation," says one student. "I'd argue that the artist is not responsible for historical fact in his art," says another. In the empty classroom afterwards, the professors consult and decide that they want the class to look more specifically at Friel's "bruises" and defend or dispute them in the next assigned essay.

The students taking "Éire/Land" are about evenly divided among history, literature, and art history majors, Savage says, and they all seem to be getting something different out of the course. English major Chrissy Linnemeier '03 appreciates the human touch that the pieces in the museum exhibition bring to the study of Ireland's history. "Being able to incorporate cultural objects, art, literature, poetry, folklore, and mythology to supplement the history makes the subject come alive," she says. "I studied in Ireland for a semester in my junior year, and I saw a beautiful, natural place—the rolling hills, the cliffs," she says. But when she thinks about that experience now, she sees connections that never occurred to her then. "You see how the history is tied to the land, not just literally but symbolically. I'm able to see where some of the nationalist sentiment comes from."

Sarah O'Connor, an exchange student from University College Cork, in Ireland, says she has gained a new respect for the role of a museum in academic life. "In my college they have started to build an art gallery, and I thought the money could have been used for more practical things. But now I can see the point. [A museum] opens so many doors, and it gives an extra intellectual space to the college."

She's also found the scholarly disagreements and varied perspectives among the professors stimulating. "In most classes you hear what one professor has to say, and you imagine that's all there is. But the collaborative process opens your eyes and makes you question what you read and what you're spoon-fed every day."

Kreilkamp, Nahum, and Savage, too, are converts to the process that has brought them together. As Savage says, "We're always looking for ways to make teaching more interesting. I go into class and I watch this unfold. Sometimes I feel like a student."

Vicki Sanders

Vicki Sanders is editor of Boston College Law Magazine.

Photo: "Éire/Land" professors Katherine Nahum (left), Vera Kreilkamp, and Robert Savage, in the McMullen Museum. By Lee Pellegrini

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